Excited scientists have announced a big first for space exploration – the first planet that may have a watery atmosphere that could support life like that of Earth.
The catchy named K2-18b may be the first world outside the Solar System capable of maintaining life.
But that’s where the excitement ends because modern technology is just not sophisticated enough to take the research any further until a new generation of space telescopes launch in the 2020s.
K2-18b is 650 billion miles – 111 light years – away from Earth and out of range of even the most powerful probe.
A team of astronomers at London’s University College believe the planet is the best candidate so far discovered in the search for alien life.
The world nestles in the habitable zone of a star at a distance where the temperature ranges between zero and 40 degrees centigrade and has an atmosphere that appears to comprise at least 50% water.
“The Earth really stands out in our own Solar System. It has oxygen, water and ozone. But if we find all that around a planet around a distant star we must be cautious about saying that it supports life,” said Professor Giovanna Tinetti, who leads the university research team.
“This is why we need to understand not just a handful of planets in the galaxy but hundreds of them. And what we hope is that the habitable planets will stand out, that we will see a big difference between the planets that are habitable and the ones that are not.
“This is the first time that we have detected water on a planet in the habitable zone around a star where the temperature is potentially compatible with the presence of life.”
The professor warned that even if life is found on K2-18b, the expectation would be microorganisms or bacteria, not animals, humanoids or other developed life forms.
“This is one of the biggest questions in science and we have always wondered if we are alone in the Universe,” said the professor’s colleague Dr Ingo Waldmann said. “Within the next 10 years, we will know.”